Book Review: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

CaveatEmptorHow would you feel if you just spent several thousand dollars on a painting, only to find out it’s a forgery? If you had the ability to forge expensive works of art, sneak it past Sotheby’s art experts, and get away with it, would you do it? This is how art forger Ken Perenyi made his living, made tons of money, and got away with it. Hence the title of his book, Caveat Emptor, Latin for “Buyer Beware”.

In his brash, unapologetic tone, Perenyi describes the techniques of art forgery in exquisite detail. He vividly describes the 70’s NY art scene, churning out loads of forged art, and quickly selling them for a fast buck. Most of his success is attributed to being well-connected to influential people in the art world, such as Any Warhol, Roy Cohn and…Mafia mobsters.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Logically, I’m fascinated with his savvy artistic and business skills. Yet, the emotional and moral part of my conscience feels repulsed, knowing that he was never punished for his crimes.
A recurring thought about Perenyi brews in my mind. What could he have created if he painted original art? Since he had the skill to copy famous art, did he even have the ability to create original art? His main motive for painting was to make a living (at other’s expense), not painting because he loved art. Perhaps his only ability was to copy art. We’ll never know. If you’d like to see inside the mind of a criminal, the business of art auction houses and art restoration, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: 4 stars

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

  1. I have not read the book, but the artist\forger was recently featured on CBS’ Sunday Morning show. In the piece he explained that he was formally trained as an artist, but when he went to sell his original works – yes, he did try the straight route – he was rebuked\unsuccessful. Maybe it was a combination of the times and his style, but he wasn’t having any luck. I forget what got him to his first forgery, but he explained that he never specifically tried to pass them off as “originals”. He would tell the dealers that he went to that he *found it at a garage sale*, or other such plausible stories, and then just play off their reaction. Kind of a passive deceipt. Because of the painstaking detail he puts into each piece I still consider him to be an artist. Maybe not an original, but an artist none the less. To my way of thinking, the unscrupulous dealers are the bigger crooks. — YUR

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    1. I wish I saw the artist’s TV interview. I agree, he is an artist, and the dealers are crooks. Yet, the only reason he was able to sell his paintings at high prices is because he made a conscious decision to omit the most relevant fact that increased the value of his paintings – he painted them, not the original artist.

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  2. Great review! I, too, was somewhat repulsed by the author — seems like he is still profiting from his crimes. Have you read the novel The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro? It raises the question that unclerave raised — who is the bigger crook, the artist or the dealer?

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    1. Hi Ann,

      Thanks for your kind words.
      No, I never read The Art Forger – it sounds like I should add it to my never ending “to be read” book pile 🙂
      The artist and the dealer are both crooks since they’re both knowingly selling a fraudulent piece of art.

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